Brioche toast lacquered with mulberry jam and lemony, pesto-speckled rice bowls are sunrise sensations at Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl in Los Angeles. New York's food obsessives decry and then obsessively order the $3 sticky bun, $17 egg and cheese sandwich, and $100 smoked fish tower (hey, the bagels come gratis) served at buzzy Sadelle’s in Soho.
Houston’s stylish Pondicheri starts the day with dishes like beet uttapam, a neon fuchsia riff on the classic South Indian pancake. At Palace Diner up in Biddeford, Maine, chefs Chad Conley and Gregory Mitchell have recalibrated greasy spoon staples — their bacon and breakfast sausage are exceptional, their eggs cooked to golden precision — without losing the everyman appeal. And the new restaurant I most regret missing in my travels last year? Indianapolis’s morning phenom Milktooth, where this summer I plan to make up for lost time over wild rice biscuits, sweet-tea fried chicken, and savory Dutch baby pancake, with lots of coffee to keep me conscious afterward.
Coast to coast, breakfast is being taken seriously like never before by restaurants of all kinds. The day’s first meal is our most populist meal: casual, affordable, bolstering, quick. We’re eating it out in the world more and more. Fast-food chains have caught on: Breakfast has been their fastest growing segment over the last few years. (McDonald’s decision to serve McMuffins and hash browns all day long is only the latest development.) Now, too, more independent chefs and restaurateurs are recognizing breakfast’s untapped promise. As a platform for fresh ideas and exceptional cooking, the morning time slot isn’t nearly as populated or saturated as lunch and dinner, and the weekday crowds I’ve witnessed suggest there’s a hungry audience.
It’s surprising that breakfast hasn’t been pulled into the industry-wide blurring between highbrow and lowbrow cooking earlier. The whole morning-foods genre is ripe for tinkering: How can the pancakes be lighter, the waffles crisper yet fluffier, the French toast less monotonous, the omelets more technically precise — all without becoming too fiddly? (Breakfast that veers too far into grandness becomes a parody of itself; we all innately feel when the line has been crossed.) But in the same way that burgers have been transformed and deified for the last decade-plus, when a chef nails an upgrade of a breakfast dish, it can incite mania. I’m still marveling over the Palace Diner’s Deluxe Sandwich. It’s just baked eggs with bacon, cheddar, and jalapeno on a large English muffin, yet it was the best breakfast sandwich I’ve ever had. The care in its construction led each element to come together in fresh harmony.
Since breakfast is a simple meal, brunch haters allergic to pretension can embrace it. And the meal’s innate flexibility makes it receptive to myriad interpretations. Indulgent dinner for breakfast? Diner chic Dove’s Luncheonette serves the same chile rellenos and smothered chicken fried chicken at 9 a.m. or 10 p.m. Muscadine in Portland, Oregon bypasses pancakes and French toast for Southern traditions like salmon croquettes or smoked ham with bracing red eye gravy over grits, sauteed greens, and eggs any way. Healthy with a twist? Pondicheri gives steel cut oats an Indian makeover, simmered in coconut milk with cinnamon, cardamom, and brown sugar-like jaggery.
Sometimes what’s interesting is simply which restaurants are choosing to attract customers at an early hour. This past November, for example, I was surprised when a food writer in San Antonio suggested we meet at Il Sogno Osteria, a restaurant in the bustling Pearl district run by lauded chef, in the a.m. rather than in the p.m. The mood in the dining room was calm, filled mostly with suited professionals, and the kitchen was on its game. I ate beautifully coddled eggs served in spicy tomato sauce a la shakshuka, the trending Israeli specialty.
But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the reinvigorated American breakfast is the opportunity to re-define the meal itself. The country’s best chefs turning to the morning meal means the possibility of encountering culinary greatness at the time of day we’ve least expected it. My dream breakfast leans savory and feels nourishing without becoming monotonous — a nearly impossible balance achieved by Koslow’s sorrel pesto rice bowl at Sqirl. Preserved Meyer lemon, homemade hot sauce (rounded in flavor but not too fiery), and sharp feta wake up the taste buds. Radish brings in crunch. Poached egg (and a side of avocado) soothe with their gentle textures. The sophistication and ambition behind its composition make it the best modern breakfast dish in the country. But I’m betting this is only the dawn of a new American breakfast revolution.